“Give thanks for the little and you will find a lot” - Nigerian Proverb
Just a short while ago, if someone told me I ought to be practicing ‘gratitude’, I would not have responded positively.
I’d probably have nodded politely and backed away. I may have started thinking that you probably worshipped an ancient Goddess, smoked a lot of weed, and that I was in danger of receiving a sermon if I didn’t politely disengage immediately.
Words like ‘gratitude’, ‘consciousness’, and anything to do with ‘the universe’ had me tuning out like a broken radio.
Today, I’m still not the most spiritual guy. I’ve yet to worship and become a devout disciple of any ancient Goddesses (I’m open to offers, though - get in touch with your most competitive benefits package).
What changed for me? Simply put, I gave it a shot, and I saw the benefits. I’m not talking about some woo-woo results and vague statements either. There’s been numerous studies in psychology and psychotherapy that demonstrate the practical and tangible benefits of gratitude.
By gratitude, I mean the general and all-encompassing mind-set and action of appreciating what you have, and being thankful for it. You don’t have to express gratitude externally towards a person to practice it! It's something you can do yourself, in an empty room.
So, who is gratitude for?
Gratitude doesn't discriminate. You can be a spiritual guru and practice gratitude. Your only religion might be sports: you can still benefit from gratitude. If you’re a fairly mentally healthy human being, you can benefit from gratitude.
The religious associations with gratitude are no coincidence, though. It’s a ‘virtue’ that’s been praised in practically every major spiritual and religious teaching.
What’s interesting is that the same message comes through regardless of date and location, ranging…
From the East:
"Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn't learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn't learn a little, at least we didn't get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn't die; so, let us all be thankful." - Buddha
“Whatever I am offered in devotion with a pure heart -- a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water -- I accept with joy.” - Bhagavad Gita
“If you look to others for fulfillment, you will never be fulfilled. If your happiness depends on money, you will never be happy with yourself. Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the world belongs to you." - Lao-Tzu
To the West…
“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has." - Epictetus
“A grateful mind is a great mind which eventually attracts to itself great things."- Plato
“Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.” - Marcus Aurelius
...and that's just some commonly known quotes from written history.
Add in all of the oral traditions and parables from Native communities, Tribal communities, your granny - and you get the picture.
You might still not be convinced, and rightly so. History has taught us that just because lots of people say something doesn’t make it’s true.
So instead, let me convince you with…
The Science of Gratitude:
Psychological research on gratitude has taken a positive turn in recent years. No longer is it simply seen as an appreciation of someones help (a surface level definition, and maybe the most common usage). Instead, it’s been looked at as a ‘life orientation’, a kind of world-view.
The purpose of the research below is looking at whether taking that world-view actually helps improve your life.
Spoiler: it does. Significantly.
In fact, being grateful has been shown to predict significantly lower risk of a range of diagnoses including major depression, generalised anxiety disorder, phobia, nicotine dependence, alcohol dependence, drug “abuse” or dependence, and the risk of bulimia nervosa.
Here’s some other benefits of practicing gratitude:
Better sleep: Research has shown that gratitude can increase sleep quality. In one study of 65 people suffering from a chronic pain condition, researchers found that those who completed a 'daily gratitude journal' each night reported half an hour more sleep than those who didn't (happier human 2018).
More energy: Grateful people are far more likely to report being energetic, mentally and physically. (Happier human 2018)
Better health: Practicing gratitude has been linked to less frequent visits to the doctor, lower blood pressure, and a smaller chance of suffering from a mental health disorder.
- Better relationships: Studies have shown that gratitude can play a huge role in a good relationship. One survey of over 5000 people found that small and everyday acts of kindness and gratitude were the most important factors for a successful relationship (John, 2016).
By now, you get the point. I could sit and paraphrase studies all day, but that wouldn’t be useful.
We've covered the what and why, so let's look at how to actually take action.
Create a gratitude journal:
The simplest and easiest way to practice gratitude is to create a gratitude journal.
Unlike traditional journalling, this should be super short and to the point. Every day, simply write down 3 things you are grateful for. It’s really important to note that this can be anything, no matter how big or small. For instance, my entry this morning reads:
I’m grateful for:
- My hoodie for keeping me warm on this winter’s day
- The large mug of fresh black coffee in front of me
- My cats, for play-fighting and making me laugh
In my experience, you'll get the best results by doing this kind of entry either at the start of your day or at the end (or both). By doing so, you prime your mind to be grateful either for the coming day, or for a good nights sleep. However, do it when you can. Any time is better than never!
This method is actually used in 12-step programs, and has been shown to help aid recovery significantly.
The meditation is simply a more dynamic way of doing the journal. Sit quietly, and close your eyes. Think about all of the things you are grateful for - and think big. Your house, your partner, your socks, the sound of the birds chirping : it can be anything.
This can go hand-in-hand with your current meditation practice (if you have one). If you regularly do a 20 minute meditation, try dedicating 5 minutes to this practice. Or if you don't meditate, just set a timer for 5 minutes on your phone.
With consistent practice, you’ll find that this positive feeling starts to follow you around even after the meditation is finished!
Catch your thoughts:
When you experience negative thoughts throughout the day, like anger and irritation, try and catch them.
Observe what your mind is doing and replace it with something positive - replace it with a grateful thought!
- I'm so fed up with the current coronavirus restrictions
Replace it with
- I'm so grateful I have a safe place to call my home, and a TV to keep me entertained while I'm stuck inside
It's really important to note here that this doesn't mean you just ignore the origin of the negative feeling. For instance, if you're really upset about not getting a raise at your work, don't simply resort to gratitude - take action! Consider a different job and take steps to reach your goals.
The main purpose of 'catching your thoughts' is to cease any unnecessary dwelling on negativity. If you can do something about it - always do so!
But if you can't, save yourself some suffering and replace it with a grateful thought!
Remember, you’re only human
I find it helpful to think about the bare essential things I do have - like electricity, water, a safe home. However for some people this can sometimes stir up feelings of guilt.
'I'm so pathetic for being concerned about my relationship when there's people that are living in poverty!"
If thoughts like this arrive, just remember that you are human. It's not your job to save the world, and your problems are as valid as anyone else's - no matter if they seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
Finally, give yourself a break once and a while. Sometimes the last thing you want to do after a terrible day is write in your gratitude journal, or even think about how lucky you are to have a safe existence.
That’s okay - head to bed, stick Netflix on, and try again tomorrow. We all have bad days, and no one can constantly be in.a positive frame of mind.
The only important thing is that you try.
Where can I read more?
Broadly speaking, gratitude and ‘positive thinking’ in general is a legimitate field in psychology, funnily enough called positive psychology.
For some reading recommendations, I’d recommend:
Boniwell, I. (2012). Positive Psychology In a Nutshell: The Science of Happiness (3rd edition). London: Mc Graw Hill
Frankl, V.E. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press
Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown
Until next time,
Rash, J.A., Matsuba, M. K., & Prkachin, K. M. (2011). Gratitude and well-being: Who benefits the most from a gratitude intervention? Applied Psychology: Health and Well-being, 3, 350 – 369. doi: 10.1111/j.1758_0854.2011.01058.x
Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 890 – 905.
Froh, J. J., Sefick, W. J., & Emmons, R. A. (2008). Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of School Psychology, 46, 213 – 233.
Visserman, M. L., Righetti, F., Impett, E. A., Keltner, D., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2018). It’s the motive that counts: Perceived sacrifice motives and gratitude in romantic relationships. Emotion, 18, 625 – 637. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000344